Tripod Toppers

By Roger (8 May 2016)

Before we leave the subject of tripods, there are a few other things to consider to finish off your stability package. After you go through the struggle to pick your “legs,” you need to decide what you're going to put on top of them. You don't just set the camera on top; you need something that will allow you to adjust the camera to the perfect angle to capture the composition.

Naturally, there are competing opinions and a myriad of possible solutions to confuse you. As always, talk to your photography friends about what they like and don't like. The most common topper is a ball head, like the one below.

Typical Ball Head

Securely mounted to the ball head

You'll want a ball head that allows you to smoothly adjust your camera into the proper position, with no slippage once you have the camera exactly where you want it. When you're on ground or sand that is not level, you can put your tripod into a sturdy position and level your camera, adjusting it with the ball head. As I discussed in the choosing your tripod blog, you need to consider the weight of your camera and whatever lens you attach. A good quality ball head won't slip.

Ball heads have a slot on one side, so you can move your camera from landscape to portrait mode, without the need to remove your camera from the ball head. This will change the balance on your tripod, however, so ensure your tripod is balanced and your camera is securely locked into the ball head.

Ball head in portrait mode

Another tripod topper choice is the gimbal head. This is the most popular for use with long, heavy telephoto lenses. It is especially favored by nature and sports photographers. The ball head adjustments are not as easy to get to with a long lens attached, but the gimbal adjustments are out to the side. In addition, when the gimbal is properly set up, you can move the camera and lens quickly with just one hand. When you're trying to photograph fast-moving subjects with a long lens, this ability to move is very important.

Gimbal head

Gimbal head with a 5 pound lens

This doesn't mean that you can't use a ball head for long lenses. A sturdy ball head can support long lenses. As you can see, in the photo below, some photographers use long lenses and ball heads. I prefer the gimbal for long lenses and a ball head when I have shorter lenses attached. You need to make your own choices.

Ball head and long lens

The key to the whole system is a quick release plate that attaches to the bottom of your camera and long lenses. Many ball head and gimbal manufacturer companies have proprietary plates that work with only their tripod heads. The alternative, Arca Swiss, standard is more universal and less expensive. They are my preferred solution because they are available from many vendors and are strong enough to support all my equipment.

Proprietary or Arca Swiss, both work fine, but you should standardize your plates and buy enough to cover all your cameras and lenses. You don't want multiple systems, and you don't want to switch these plates from component to component when there are photographs to make. For many long lenses, you can even get Arca Swiss-compatible feet and switch out the one from your manufacturer that relies on a proprietary system. I put one on my Nikon 70-200mm. (You can see it in the second photo, above.)

Another component to consider is the L Bracket. This attaches to the bottom of the camera and goes up the left side. You can see some examples at this link and on the photos of my camera. This allows you to re-position your camera from landscape to portrait, without moving your ball head or gimbal. Since I use the gimbal for long lenses only, I use the L bracket on just the ball head. These L brackets are camera-specific, because of battery compartments and ease of access to camera interfaces, so buy carefully. It should surprise no one that my L bracket is has Arca Swiss compatibility for attaching to my ball head or gimbal head.

By the time you add everything together – tripod, monopod, ball head, gimbal head, L bracket – the cost may dissuade you. But you don't have to buy them all at the same time, and this good quality gear will outlast you. I've had the same stability gear for more than 10 years and use it more than most part-time photographers. They're all still in great condition and getting lots of use. Good equipment is a worthwhile investment.

I hope these blogs have helped you see the value in stability products. They'll increase the sharpness of all your photographs; help you slow down as you move from subject to subject; and open up more opportunities for low light photography. Once you become accustomed to using this gear, you'll find you enjoy them more out in the field than sitting in a corner somewhere. And they come in handy for self-portraits, too.

Different camera, but same tripod and ball head.

Try A Tripod

By Roger (4 April 2016)

One of the more under-appreciated pieces of photography gear is the tripod, and that's a shame. They have many important uses in photography, and, in the old days, they were part of every photographer's kit. A good tripod can last forever if it's treated properly. It never needs a software upgrade or new batteries. Yet, so many photographers either don't own one or let them gather dust in the closet.

A good tripod is vital for extra sharpness

A good tripod is vital for extra sharpness

Let's cover just a few of their more negative traits, first, and end on the high side. They can be a pain to carry around if you need maximum mobility and don't want the added weight. A high-end tripod and ballhead can be a very expensive addition to your toolbox. With today's high ISO capabilities and built-in image stabilization, too many photographers think they don't need a tripod.

All of these complaints are valid; however, although tripods aren't practical for every occasion, they are still extremely useful in certain environments. I always keep one in my vehicle and, usually, bring one when I’m going by plane. During my recent four-city road trip, I needed my tripod at each location, so I was really glad I dragged it along.

A vase from the Pompeii exhibit

The most basic use of your tripod is as a solid foundation to remove any worries about camera movement. New cameras are almost all equipped with some sort of image stabilization, but that can only help so much. To achieve maximum sharpness, you often need a platform to keep your camera absolutely still, especially as the focal length and/or exposure times increase. Nature photographers, with their long, heavy lenses, and landscape photographers, who require edge-to-edge sharpness, will “always” use a tripod.

Don’t be lulled into complacency because new cameras are capable of higher ISOs than were imaginable in the recent past. There are trade-offs there, too. High ISO photographs are more prone to noise in the shadows. I have a camera that works very well in low light, but who wants to worry about noise when you can use a tripod and keep your ISO and noise low?

Basilica Notre Dame, Montreal, Canada

This is a six second exposure at ISO 200. There is no noise, even when you zoom into 600%. (Yes, I’ve checked to be certain.) I couldn’t have made this photo without a tripod; you can't hand-hold the camera that still. Even with a high ISO setting, I would not have the clarity this photo required.

There are so many other similar reasons for relying on the stable platform of a tripod. If you need to greatly increase your depth of field, the resulting small aperture greatly reduces the light to the sensor and necessitates slower shutter speeds. Use a tripod. If you need several varying exposure photographs for a high dynamic range photograph, a tripod will keep your camera stable for perfect alignment. If you want to create the best panorama alignment, use a tripod. Night photography, with or without star trails, self-portraits, light painting photos, macro photography – the list of obvious uses is long.

4 photo pano, Denali, Alaska

There are even more uses that might not be so obvious to you.

So many photographers whip from photo to photo, never slowing down to contemplate the best way to record what is in front of them. Since a tripod will reduce your mobility, you can slow down and more carefully examine the composition inside your camera. This is a good thing and can improve the quality of your photos. You get no extra points for making more photos than someone else, especially if those photos are mediocre. Take your time and concentrate on better quality photos.

You can use tripods to hold continuous lighting, flash guns, or reflectors. There are lots of accessories specifically designed for tripods. When Mark did his Halloween photobooth (link), he had a table, from Tether Tools (link), set up on a tripod, holding his laptop. Since his camera was plugged into his computer, the photos would come up on the screen for immediate viewing by the guests.

If you want to shoot video, a tripod can get rid of those jerky movements you see in so many videos. I would recommend a fluid head to get the smooth movements you see in professional videos. You may not shoot much video, but it is a rapidly growing area of photography. You can never start learning too early.

There are so many varieties and price ranges for quality tripods today. I think we'll just save that topic for another blog. So the next time you go out to make some new photography, think about your dusty tripod, and take it with you. You'll never use it if you leave it at home.

Weed macro

What's a Workflow?

By Roger (3 May 2015)

Sometimes, when you're teaching something, you tend to throw out a phrase and keep going because the phrase is something very basic. You assume the audience knows what you're talking about. I know I've made that mistake from time to time. I got called on it, recently, while I was working with some absolute beginners. The phrase was “workflow.”

Workflow is just a series of routine practices that help you keep your actions consistent and efficient. You can create processes, or workflows, in many parts of your life, but, for photography, consistency can help in many ways, from remembering to check everything before you press the shutter to developing your own unique look in your photographs. There are many examples of best practices out there, but, in the end, you get to decide what works best for you.

You will usually hear “workflow” when we're discussing post-processing, but let's start with a workflow you rarely hear about: camera preparation. I try to follow the same workflow to ensure everything is ready to go, and I don't forget anything.

I keep my gear in a credenza, out of my camera bags, so I'm forced to think, beforehand, about which gear I'll need for whatever I'm going to photograph. Unless I'm going on a long roadtrip in my truck (where I'll pack my rollerbag and a smaller camera bag), I'm not going to lug everything around. Do I need a second camera or flashes?

Put your tools away after every use

Put your tools away after every use

Next, I check all my batteries to ensure they are charged. You don't want to run a battery down; reach for your spare; and find out it isn't charged. This can be a very bad thing, if you're in the middle of something important – like a wedding. Your camera is using a small amount of power even while it's powered down and sitting on the shelf. You can't trust your battery to be fully-charged, just because it was charged when you used it last.

I don't reformat my memory cards until I'm sure all my files have multiple backups. If anything disasterous were to occur before everything is backed up, I still have the files on the cards. I've never needed the cards, but it's a bit of insurance for me, just in case. Therefore, I need to reformat them before I take off.

My final step is the camera and lens settings. I have a preset on my camera that puts me back into my basic settings. Check your manual since most of today's cameras can do this. This will prevent you from carelessly not noticing the ISO has change or that you have dialed in some exposure compensation, etc. I synchronize my camera clocks to ensure they're showing the same time as my watch. Check your lens to see that your vibration reduction switch is on and your auto-focus mode is normal. Those switches can be changed from bouncing around in your camera bag.

My pre-shoot workflow ensures I am prepared for whatever I encounter. I get a little boost in confidence that everything is ready to go. The only drawback is that you lose the excuses for failed photographs caused by your camera gear. If the photograph looks bad, the problem is obviously the operator.

You may have noticed, I need to develop a better workflow for my blogging. My plan to put one out on the weekend hasn't worked very well. I'll get better. Mark is recommending writing the blog in the days before I post, but that's just silly.

I've been away from my computer for too many of the last few weekends. I've been having fun at the Cherry Blossom Festival and several horse events. Here are a few photos from those fun shoots.

Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, D.C.

Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, D.C.

Arena Polo

Arena Polo

Horse racing in Virginia

Horse racing in Virginia

Post-race cool down

Post-race cool down



Use that Old Gear

By Roger (7 September 2014)

When you get a bunch of photographers together, you can be sure that, sooner or later, there will be some talk about the gear. He wants this new lens; she thinks this camera is better than that one. These debates/discussions/arguements can go on for hours.

Like most everyone else, I love the nice gear, especially high quality lenses. But you don't want to make gear more important than your creative vision. Don't use old gear as the excuse to sit at home, instead of going out to make new work.

Potomac River, Virginia

Potomac River, Virginia

Too often, new photographers think gear is the answer to make their photos better. It's not hard to figure out where these feelings come from. They see experienced photographers, with expensive gear; they see great photos made by the experienced photographers, with this gear; and they conclude they need the expensive gear to make similar photographs.

The truth is you don't need the most expensive cameras and lenses to make good photographs. Oh, sure, there are bells and whistles on that gear that makes them worth the cost, but, even without those features, today's less expensive gear will make exceptional photos. As I explained (here), last year, I was forced to leave my D4 and 70-200mm in the hotel room and shoot a wedding with a D5200 and 28-300mm. I had to work a little harder, but the photos were fine and bride and groom happy.

Wedding Vows

Wedding Vows

These days, camera bodies are depreciating as quickly as computers. Regardless of the price level you buy into, the cameras are replaced with newer models every few years. If you are constantly chasing the latest model, you will spend thousands of dollars for gear that will almost certainly NOT improve your photography. Sure, you'll get that momentary high from the new camera smell when you open the box, and you'll run out somewhere to play with the new buttons. However, a couple weeks (days?) later, you'll be back to wondering why your photos don't look like the ones _insert some other photographer's name_ made or why your new camera doesn't magically give you the creativity you are seeking.

Lenses for your camera can last much longer; with proper care, they can last until they don't fit on any camera. New lens smell can have the same effect on you as new camera smell, but you'll come crashing down just the same, if you think the gear makes the photographer.

I love this expression.

I love this expression.

So, how do you fight what is commonly called “gear acquisition syndrome,” or GAS? (I'm not making this stuff up, you can Google this term!) Let's assume you're not suffering from any real problems that cause an addiction – I'm not qualified to address that. What you have is just the unreal expectations and natural desires that result from too many photography equipment ads and wanting “the best” of everything.

Your first step here is to put the camera ads down and go look at some work from people who are known as masters of photography. You'll get the best experience from a museum or gallery showing, but you can find examples on the internet. Your opinions of who should be considered “master photographers” will probably differ from mine, so I won't name names. Just do some independent searching. Their work was done on film, with many more equipment constraints than you are working with. How did they accomplish this with such basic equipment? Their cameras did not autofocus; had no built-in light meter; had to be reloaded with film. Why, they couldn't even look on the back of the camera to get a preview of the photo they took.

I hate to beat a horse we've beaten to death here, but my first answer is know your current equipment. Learn the capabilities and limitations of what is in your bag. Have you tried even half of the features listed in your current camera's menu?

Photography is about your vision, not your capture device. Your phone camera is probably more capable than what the professionals paid thousands for just 10 years ago. I'll just move along before this becomes an old guy rant.

Don't make the old guy angry.

Don't make the old guy angry.

If we're being logical, we know new gear is rarely the solution to our creativity problems. If we're being realistic, we know we're probably got our eye on something we want. Just don't wait until you buy that thing to get out there and make something new.

And don't think, without fancy equipment, your photos can't look their best. All of the photos in this blog were chosen because they were taken with “inexpensive,” variable aperture lenses and older cameras – in fact, you can't buy any of these cameras as new items today.

So, let's take our current gear out for a walk in the woods and smell the flowers before they disappear under the snow. You never know what you'll find, and I promise you your camera and lenses are good enough for you to have some fun.



Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.

I make no promises that there will be elephants for our photowalk.

I make no promises that there will be elephants for our photowalk.